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Thursday, 5 June 2014

1.1 - A study of the reasons why Somalia is struggling to address the Issue of Female Genital Mutilation


The past thirty years have seen the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) gain prominence within international dialogue, and the fight to end ‘cutting’ is now global. The first recorded opposition of FGM occurred in Kenya in 1906,[1] but international pressure to end FGM was only fully mounted in 1997 when the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued a joint statement calling on governments to ban the practice. Their campaign drew public attention to the issue of FGM and was followed in the UK by the implementation of the Prohibition Circumcision Act of 1985.

This week the Home Office, working in partnership with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), launched a poster campaign aimed at tackling FGM in 17 London boroughs and seven cities across England and Wales. The campaign targets mothers and carers in the Somali, Kenyan and Nigerian communities, which have a higher than average prevalence of FGM, and urges them to anonymously call an NSPPC helpline if they know any girls who are at risk. Schools, doctors’ surgeries, police stations and hospitals will also receive copies of the posters to display in staff areas. David Cameron will also host Girl Summit 2014 in July, which is an international conference focused on tackling FGM and early and forced marriage within a generation. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, said: ‘FGM is child abuse. The government is absolutely committed to tackling and preventing this harmful practice in order to safeguard and protect all girls and women who may be at risk’.

This report was written to coincide with the campaign and hopefully add to the growing body of material aimed at educating and raising awareness of the global issue of FGM. It aims to explore and bridge the gap between the prevalence of FGM and the attainment of workable solutions to it by analysing the issues faced in implementing policies and strategies for reasons of culture, politics, and economics. Somalia is used as a case study as it has the highest estimated percentage of girls and women to have experienced FGM in the world; a 2006 survey carried out by UNICEF revealed the total to be 97.9% of 15-49 year olds.  The practice was only proscribed there in 2012.

This report is divided into two sections. Section one is concerned with theoretical issues related to FGM and section two focuses on the efforts to address FGM in Somalia and discusses why they are struggling to make much headway. Chapter one provides an overview of the practice, the types performed, and the various justifications given for its occurrence. The second chapter addresses the debate surrounding the dichotomy of human rights and cultural relativism. It debates whether it is morally possible for those involved, such as international NGOs, governments, and women who have been cut to address the practice of FGM on the grounds of human rights, or whether to do so would be to dismiss the human right to practice one’s own cultural traditions. Chapter three provides a brief history of Somalia, and outlines the context within which the prevalence of, attitudes towards, and struggles to address FGM within the country can be understood. The efforts to acknowledge FGM within Somalia’s history, including during Siad Barre’s socialist regime of 1969-1991 are also noted. Chapter four looks at the action taken by Somalia to address the problem and the obstacles they face, and chapter five consequently examines international efforts towards addressing FGM there. The wider global issues of female subordination and gender inequality are addressed and the argument is made that whilst gender awareness has increased over the past four decades, there is still a marked disparity between the position and condition of the sexes around the world. Chapter six concludes by exploring the social movements that have emerged in Somalia to oppose the practice of FGM, and the obstacles they face.


Female Genital Mutilation, also known as female genital cutting, is an umbrella terms used to describe the intentional alteration of a woman’s sexual organs for non-medical reasons.[2] The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as ‘all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the female external genital and/or injury to the female genital organs for cultural or any other non-therapeutic reasons’ (1999:3). It classifies several types that vary according to levels of severity and ethnic group (see Figure 1).

  • Type I - excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris;
  • Type II - excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora;
  • Type III - excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation);
  • Type IV - pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue;
  • scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice or cutting of the vagina;
  • introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or for the purpose of tightening or narrowing it; and any other procedure that falls under the definition given above.
Figure 1. Source: WHO, (2000)

The types of FGM practiced throughout the world differ according to cultural and social norms as does the language surrounding it. In Somalia the practice as a whole is known as gudniin or halalayn (meaning purification), Type I, II, IV and all other additional practices are referred to as sunna (meaning ‘following the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings’), and Type III is called gudniinka fircooniga ah or gudniin fadumo (meaning ‘Faduma’s circumcision’, relating to the procedure allegedly undergone by the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Faduma), (World Bank & UNFPA, 2004: 20). It has been argued that due to the religious connotations of such names, FGM receives popular but erroneous religious legitimisation. This will be further examined in relation to FGM and Islam.

Female Genital Mutilation is practiced across approximately 28 countries in sub-Saharan and Northeast Africa, and to a lesser extent in Asia, the Middle East and within immigrant communities elsewhere, including in western countries. The origins of the practice are unknown but it is believed to have existed for at least 2,000 years and been performed in societies as diverse as Guinea and Russia. Due to such geographical dispersal, it is generally understood that the practice arose independently in different areas as a rite of passage.

Although statistics are notoriously hard to collect due to the nature of the issue, estimates based on the most recent prevalent data suggest between 120 and 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone some form of FGM, both in the developed and the developing world. Statistics indicate that that 91.5 million women and girls over the age of 9 years old living in Africa have undergone a type of FGM, while in seven countries the national prevalence is over 85%. However, as noted above, FGM is not restricted to African countries. Despite the practice being illegal, estimates suggest that around 20,000 girls under the age of 15 years old in England and Wales could be at high risk of FGM each year, and approximately 66,000 women in the same areas have undergone the procedure. Over 4000 victims of FGM have sought treatment in London hospitals alone in the past three years but only one individual has been charged with an offence committed contrary to S1 (1) of the Female Genital Mutilation Act in the UK.

The reasons given for FGM vary between societies. As with some other cultural practices, they are often based on myths, (such as its requisition by Islam), which are nonetheless very compelling within practising societies. Momoh and Van der Kwaak have determined four primary explanations, namely social/cultural, psychosexual, religious, and aesthetic/hygiene.

The first explanation pertains to societal persuasion and cultural tradition and is widely cited as the key reason for the practice and continuation of FGM. It is very powerful as ‘when a tradition such as female circumcision becomes so deeply engrained in a society- accepted by virtually everyone, either passively or actively- it can serve as a power that helps to bind the community together and provide a source of cultural identity’ (Slack, 1988: 449). Social issues such as marriage are closely linked to the economics of every day life in many societies. A woman’s virginity has an impact on social economics in terms of the payment and value of the dowry, bride price and the position and social standing of the girl (Abdalla, 1982: 53-6). Maintenance of a woman’s virginity is often a crucial pre-requisite for marriage and FGM is often seen as a method for ensuring a girl’s virginity, as, by allegedly reducing her sexual ability and desire, a girl is less likely to engage in pre-marital sex. It is a common belief in practicing societies that an uncut woman has sexual feelings for every man she comes across and is likely to stray from her marriage. FGM is seen as a useful practice that keeps women chaste and a tool to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in their communities.

Undergoing the procedure is also perceived as bringing honour to a girl and to her family; by making her eligible for marriage and raising the status of her family in the eyes of society. If she does not undergo the procedure she may be stigmatised by her family and her society, and will not necessarily have the same support structures and treatment throughout her life that a married woman would (Gruenbaum, 2001: 45-7; Momsen, 2004: 80). Indeed, women in Somalia often cannot get married without undergoing the practice, and UNICEF states that often, ‘women may feel that the pain endured by their daughters during and after circumcision is a lesser evil than the emotional and economic hardship they will ensure by remaining unmarried’ (2004: 3). In a 2005 United Nations IRIN report, the senior FGM 'surgeon' in the Maasai community Kenya explained that:
'Many educated Maasai men and women still favour the practice of FGM, not because they are uninformed 
about the risks involved, but for fear of the social repercussions, should they reject the custom. An 
uncircumcised woman remains a girl in the eyes of the community, however much education she may have, or 
whatever status she may attain in the outside world. For a woman who refuses to be circumcised, the risk of 
isolation is great, the chances of finding a Maasai spouse are reduced to almost nil, and her status in society 
will always be that of a child'.

Within practising societies, FGM is also linked to gender roles and to the physical sex-ascribed attributes that a woman has, being strongly linked to sexuality, identity and power (Momoh, 2005c: 1). It is often an integral part of the life-cycle and of inducting a girl into adulthood. The physical practice of FGM is often accompanied, if appropriate to the age of the girl, by lessons about womanhood, becoming a mother, and the role of women within family and society. Van der Kwaak argues that women in Somalia begin to acquire their gendered identity upon undergoing FGM. ‘The segregation of the sexes starts with circumcision… [t]he first step to their gender identity has been taken. This is where gender asymmetry begins which is evident in all aspects in Somali life’ (1992: 782). The ceremonies are also often celebrated with festivities and are sometimes anticipated in a positive way by the girl and her family, and seen as a social occasion by the community.

The second explanation commonly cited to explain the prevalence and perpetuation of FGM is that of religion. The relationship between religious belief and FGM is complex and the debate has become embroiled in religious polemics. Many societies, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, argue that FGM is a requirement of Islam, as quoted in one of the interpretations of the Hadiths and religious texts (Toubia, 1995: 31). Further to this, in Somalia where the culture is widely perceived to be a predominately patriarchal, nomadic pastoral traditions are blended with Islamic teaching so as to be inextricably linked. Religious connotations and links have been formed which are evidently aiding the continuation of the practice through repeated reinforcement of the (unfounded) links and requirements of Islam. Thus, whilst FGM is understood to be a pre-Islamic construct, Gruenbaum argues that ‘these practices were incorporated in such a way that they acquired meaning that was consonant with Islamic beliefs’. Therefore, in contemporary debate surrounding FGM, the acknowledgement that the practice is linked with Islam is necessary.

Contrary to this popular alignment of Islam and FGM is the argument that the practice is not prescribed by any religion, and is perpetrated by people from many faiths. In communities where FGM is a traditional practice, it is carried out Muslims, Christians, animist and even non-believers.
This understanding, extolled by Haseena Lockhat, is supported by the fact that FGM is not prevalent in many Islamic states. "When one considers that the practice does not prevail and is much condemned in countries like Saudi Arabia, the centre of the Islamic world, it becomes clear that the notion that it is an Islamic practice is a false one." (Lockhat, 2004:16). Professor of Islamic studies at King Saud University, Dr. Muhammad Lutfi al-Sabbagh, further states:
‘Since all these risks are involved in female circumcision, it cannot be legitimate under Islamic law, 
particularly since nothing that recommends it is definitely established as said by the Prophet {Peace Be Upon 
Him}. It is, however, established that he has said: "Do not harm yourself or others". This hadith is one of the 
basic principles of this True Religion’.

The third explanation used to rationalise the practice of FGM is that of psychosexuality; issues relating to the emotional and psychological aspects of sexuality. In practising societies there is often concern relating to a woman’s fidelity that drives the occurrence of FGM. Although erroneous, the belief that FGM will reduce a woman’s sexual desire is rife and the practice is explained in terms of fidelity. It ‘is justified on the basis of a belief that by reducing women’s physical ability to enjoy sex they will be less likely to be unfaithful to their partner’. (Momsen, 2004: 80). It is often an issue in polygamous societies as men believe that if one of their wives is not sufficiently satisfied she will seek fulfilment elsewhere. Consequently, many see FGM as a way to curtail a woman’s sexual desire and maintain her fidelity (Adjetey, 2005: 172). Gruenbaum relates this to the women’s experiences of subordination by demonstrating the reduced importance of women’s pleasure and sexual autonomy, arguing that ‘male sexual pleasure and family honour seem to be more universally acknowledged as important, and women’s sexuality, autonomy, reproductive abilities, and economic rights are usually subordinated to the control of fathers, brothers, husbands, and other men in their societies.’ (2001: 40).

The clitoris is also often deemed an undesirable piece of anatomy, in that it is also thought to endanger both the mother and child during birth, harm the penis, and increase a woman’s sexual desire. It is not known from where these myths originated, but they reinforce the notion that FGM is imperative for the survival of newborns and mothers, and the protection of both male and female genitalia during intercourse.

The final line of reasoning used to rationalise FGM is related to hygiene and aesthetics. The female genitals are often perceived as unclean, and thus their removal is a method of ensuring cleanliness. Hosken also describes how many cultures also believe that the female genitals are unsightly and, if left to grow naturally may become oversized and ugly. Therefore FGM is often performed to maintain a perceived standard of cleanliness and aestheticism.

However, because of the way FGM procedures are often carried out, especially in much of the developing world, many women who have been cut are subject to a multitude of health issues and complications. Both short and long-term effects arise from FGM and can cause many illnesses, physical and psychological trauma, and even death. The physical undertaking of the procedure itself may incur many problems especially if it is performed in unsanitary conditions. Immediate problems include haemorrhaging, infection, tetanus, trauma, and death, while FGM can increase the risk of exposure to HIV. This is due to an increased predisposition to genital tears, risk of viral transmission during the procedure itself, repeated use of un-sterilised equipment to perform the procedure on different women, and a higher incidence of anal sexual intercourse as a result of difficulties in vaginal intercourse due to FGM (Van der Kwaak, 1992: 780).  In the longer term, women may suffer from urinary and menstrual trouble, chronic genital pain, infertility, stillbirths, fistula, and cysts (Momoh, 2005a: 8). In cases where Type III FGM has been carried out, the women will invariably also suffer the pain of being de-infibulated for sexual intercourse and for childbirth, with a chance of being re-infibulated afterwards.

The procedure itself and consequences discussed above can also cause severe psychosexual repercussions, although of all aspects of FGM, the psychological aspect is a less known area. As previously noted, whilst the procedure does not usually damage a woman’s sexual desire, it is widely understood that the resulting trauma can cause severe inhibitions, negative consequences for self-identity, and fear (Rahman & Toubia, 2000: 9). ‘Because women’s sexuality is made even more complex by cultural values and ambiguities, it is difficult to separate the purely anatomical and hormonal sexual functions from emotional and psychological influences’ (Toubia, 1995: 18). Toubia further describes the practice as being psychologically traumatic and cites three psychosomatic resulting states: “anxiety state” originating from lack of sleep and hallucinations; “reaction depression” from delayed healing, and “psychotic excitement” from childlessness and divorce. Other problems include traumatic experience, sense of being betrayed by family members, elders, and joining peer groups by force through the FGM operation.

Such health problems also have further-reaching negative ramifications and affect sustainable livelihoods, the labour force, income stability and the productivity and reproductivity, of women. Thus FGM also needs to be tackled in order to ensure that development efforts are not hindered and that women can lead progressively more empowered, healthy lives (WHO, 1997: 1). It is therefore useful to consider the debate between human rights and cultural relativism in relation to FGM in order to further understand the reasons surrounding the continuation of the practice, and whether it is possible, and how to address them to secure its eradication. This will be the focus of chapter two.

[1] This campaign was led by Protestant missionaries in a British colony, rather than by Kenyan nationals.
[2] FGM has become the most widespread terminology in international anti-FGM circles, being adopted by the WHO and UNICEF amongst other large institutions. For this reason, it will be used throughout the essay, unless specifically stated or within a quote

1 comment:

  1. Indeed sad and pathetic! FGM in Somalia dates back to centuries, and we have so far witnessed deaths and sufferings caused by the FGM. It's such a barbaric act that needs to be addressed seriously.